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The Porcupine Effect: Redefining Rejection

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
rejected porcupine walking with head down


“I'm sure it was rejection! Wasn't it?”

You've taken the first step to managing your reactions by recognizing that you are overly sensitive to rejection and that it affects your life in ways you don't like. At times you perceive rejection when it may not have occurred. The hallmark for rejection sensitivity is the certainty you feel about being rejected. However, as described in the the previous articles, your certainty is in question. It may appear you were rejected if you only consider your perspective. But what if you view the larger picture? What do you see then?

Early in my relationship with my husband, I thought I was certain about the meaning of his comments and often reacted sensitively. Repeatedly, he told me, “Listen to my intention, not my words. I'm not good with words like you are.” I began to realize what sounded hurtful and rejecting on the surface may even be the exact opposite. Telling me how to do something was not a criticism but an attempt to be helpful. Words such as “be careful” when I left for work weren't comments about my driving but his way of saying, “I love you. Come back to me safely.” Sure, I still bristle at times but I can also remind myself, “Listen to the intention.”

I once worked with a couple who argued for most of the session regarding a topic causing almost constant tension in their marriage. I realized during the course of their argument, both were using the same word again and again. Finally, I stopped the argument and asked each one to define this particular word. They provided two wholly different responses. That moment was sort of like the cartoon of the light bulb flashing above their heads. “Really?! I didn't know that!” An ongoing argument was resolved just by understanding the other's definition of a single word.

Your definition of rejection in a situation may be different than someone else's perception of the same event.

For instance, you weren't invited to a party given by some close friends and feel rejected. However, your friends knowing that you are the type of person who feels obligated didn't invite you because they knew you had an important event the next day and didn't want to over-burden you. In this case, their intention was consideration of you, but instead, you felt rejected due to a different interpretation. Obviously, communication by both parties in this example could solve the misunderstanding. Yet, this illustrates a common type of problem often occurring for those who are sensitive to rejection--that of misinterpreting situations and intentions.

Sometimes rejection does occur. Yet, those rejections may not be personal. Instead, most rejections are about the other person.

Sometimes it may be benign such as a person is busy with other friends and doesn't have the time to devote to a new friendship. Other times it may be more malicious such as someone ridiculing you because they see themselves as superior in some way. However, in both of these situations, it is about the other person and not about you. Perhaps it wasn't the right fit or the right time but that doesn't mean it was about you. Or, perhaps the other person is rude and inconsiderate. Therefore, it still is not personal. The only time it is personal and about you is when you have caused harm to the other individual. Even not being the right fit for someone is not personal because it doesn't mean anything is wrong with you.

The following provides a guide to changing your sensitivity to rejection by redefining your perception of rejection. The process of cognitive therapy is to examine your thoughts for accuracy. When you look at your thoughts in a different way, you obtain a new perspective. Frequently, when I am working with clients and they tell me their story, I re-state it from a different perspective and they exclaim, “I never thought of it that way before!” Viewing the same problem from another viewpoint allows you to see other solutions that weren't apparent before.

“Don't they know they're hurting me? They must want to hurt me!”

Essential to rejection sensitivity is the emotional fallout from the perception of rejection. Even if rejection did not actually occur, you still feel as if you have been kicked in the gut. By recognizing how your thinking contributes to this emotional reaction and changing the inaccurate thoughts, you can change the intensity of your emotional reaction. Some common thinking errors that may occur with rejection sensitivity include generalizing, personalization, negative evaluation of the self, mind-reading, blaming, and emotional reasoning. Other inaccuracies in the thinking may exist in addition to these common errors.

1) Generalizing. Our brains are wired to make guesses, to generalize, about a situation or person based upon previous experience so as to predict and prepare for future events. Essential to the development of sensitivity to rejection is the tendency to inaccurately generalize or develop erroneous expectations about the future based on previous events. When our past has been inordinately influenced by negative events, our conclusions can be misleading. When relied on exclusively without evaluating the validity of our guess these assumptions can create problems. For instance, trying to interpret an ambiguous comment, a rejection sensitive person may think, “People have always made fun of me. This person is no different.”

Two primary errors in generalizing occur. The first is the belief that something is likely to happen in the future because it happened in the past. The second form of generalizing is the belief that because something transpired in one situation, it will be similar in another.

2) Personalization. You overhear someone say “He's a real jerk” and you think the comment is describing you. You see someone roll her eyes and think she is exasperated with you. You negatively compare yourself to others: “Everyone else can cope with these problems. What's wrong with me?” This thinking error of personalization is the tendency to believe statements or even non-verbal behaviors of others are negative reactions about you.

Complicating matters is that rejection certainly feels personal! And sometimes it strongly appears to be personal such as when someone makes fun of a person with developmental disabilities. Yet, even then, an outright insult is not truly about the person being insulted (because they haven't done anything wrong), instead it is an indictment of the person doing the insulting. That individual is the one with the problem, not the victim.

3) Negative evaluation of the self. The tendency to evaluate yourself negatively can lead to expectations of rejection. For instance, a woman was hospitalized due to severe depression. Believing that her boyfriend could never love her with such problems, she viewed his behaviors as rejecting of her. When he clumsily expressed his concern about staying in bed all day, she took it as a criticism about not helping around the house enough. When he didn't come home at his usual time, she believed the didn't want to be with her at all. Dwelling on these beliefs caused her to push her boyfriend away and become more withdrawn from the relationship. Eventually, she told him repeatedly in anger to move on with his life—and, of course, felt rejected when he did.

Those with sensitivity to rejection often make negative assumptions about themselves and believe that others perceive them in the same way. However, this negative self-perception may not be an accurate reflection of others' evaluation of them. In the above example, the boyfriend tolerated repeated angry outbursts before finally complying with her demand indicating he didn't think as negatively of her as she thought of herself.

4) Mind-reading. Annie tried to break out of her socially anxious style and said “hi” to a co-worker who didn't respond. She assumed the co-worker purposefully ignored her. However, from what I have observed of people who are socially anxious, such an attempt is often deliberately ambiguous to help them hide their embarrassment if they are rejected. She may have thought her “hi” was clear and obvious but it may not have been. If, instead, she had gotten the other person's attention by using his name, “Tony!” and made eye contact while saying “Hi, how are you?” then her message would have been more noticeable and she may have gotten a different response.

Frequently, people with fear of rejection believe their overtures are more apparent than they actually are. Such expectations for others to know what you have in mind or are thinking can lead to misunderstandings. However, more serious than common misunderstandings, the rejection sensitive individual is likely to explain the misunderstanding as deliberate rejection. “He should have known!” For example, Bruce complained to his wife that her brother always invited them for the holidays but never made arrangements for their stay: “He should know that we can't drive that far and return the same day. He really just doesn't want us to come and is only inviting us to look like the good guy. We should stay home.”

Mind-reading can also involve believing you know what others are thinking and then taking it personally. For instance, Harold interprets the lack of a smile from a co-worker: "Oh, she thinks I'm not good enough for her! What's wrong with me that no one ever likes me?" When we think we know what others are thinking we are often wrong. The reason for this is that we interpret their thoughts based on how we might think in a similar situation. However, everyone is different with various past experiences and just because we might think a certain way doesn't mean others think the same way. Therefore, it's necessary to try and look more objectively at situations.

5) Blaming. Sometimes when people are sensitive to rejection, they focus the problem on someone else rather than recognizing their own problem. For instance, Darren described his wife as very awkward with people. Although it didn't bother her, he felt embarrassed when they socialized. He blamed her for not being invited out to more social events. However, he does not reciprocate with invitations because he feels humiliated by his wife's awkward social behavior and is afraid others won't respond. In this situation, Darren is sensitive to rejection but sees his wife as the cause of his perceived rejection rather than recognizing his own behavior as problematic.

Blaming others is a convenient way to not confront the discomfort of personal flaws. Instead of changing his own behavior, he bristles at perceived affronts by others and focuses on how miserable he is because of other people and his wife's behavior.

6) Emotional reasoning. Throughout her life Louanne took care of others and felt pangs of guilt whenever someone in her family was unhappy. She believed it was her responsibility to make others happy and believed her family was angry with her when she didn't create happiness for them. The guilt further convinced her that she must be doing something wrong to cause their distress.

Frequently, those with sensitivity to rejection think “it feels like rejection, it must be rejection.” The error in this type of thinking is believing that emotions are always correct. As is true of any information, emotions must be evaluated for accuracy. Sometimes you might feel an emotion because of an inaccurate perception of the event as is often the case with sensitivity to rejection. Louanne felt guilt because of her perfectionistic over-responsibility, not because she had actually done anything wrong.

The purpose of emotions is to tell you to “Stop. Think. Evaluate.” Emotions are not telling you to “take immediate action.” Before reacting to an emotion, you need to determine the accuracy of the emotion.

How to Redefine Rejection

As you read this you may think that it takes a lot of work to change the porcupine effect. Why should you care if you are overly sensitive to rejection, expect rejection, and perceive it when it is not occurring? The beneficial purpose of sensitivity to rejection is to elicit the response of self-improvement so as to increase affiliation and connection with others. The rejection sensitive person still wants to connect. However, the inability to accurately perceive rejection causes the person to feel overwhelming distress and to engage in self-protective behaviors that push others away. If you want to connect with others and have better relationships changing these destructive self-protective behaviors and the underlying thoughts and feelings that direct the behaviors can help you reach your goals.

The previous articles about the porcupine effect, hopefully, provided a different perspective on rejection and relationships for you. However, often with cognitive therapy people will read or hear about it, report that it makes sense, but then indicate that it doesn't help. Most often, the reason cognitive therapy is not helpful is due to the lack of repetition. Your thinking doesn't change simply by reading something once or twice. As with any skill, it must be practiced again and again. This section is to provide the methods for changing your thinking. This is the work of cognitive therapy. Your life won't change without doing the work.

The most difficult part of change is the work involved so Excel At Life provides tools to help make the work and the repetition easier for you including relaxation/mindfulness audios, self-talk audios, an Android app, and an interactive website provide the structure to make your efforts more effective. People often complain that these articles are lengthy. However, that is part of the repetition. By reading, and re-reading, it helps you to change your thinking. Too often people want change to be neatly tied of in a little package that can be completed in three minutes a day. However, if you really want to change your life you need to make a concentrated effort. Only you can decide if you are ready for that and how much effort you are willing to put into it.

I've seen over the years that although my clients know that repetition helps to change thinking, the actual practice is often difficult for them. To aid in creating repetition of the new ways of thinking, I developed a number of cognitive self-talk audios. These audios can be listened to at various times such as when you are commuting to work similar to listening to audio books. The more you listen to them, the more they help your thinking change. As I explain to my clients, even if you just have the audio playing in the background while doing other things such as housework, you could still benefit from the repetition. Of course, the audios are best if given your full attention.

Using Audios to Help with Repetition

Several audios from Excel At Life that are relevant to rejection sensitivity and are free to download include:

1) Social Anxiety Assistance. This audio helps you to challenge the thinking related to social anxiety. In particular, it helps you to think about rejection in a different way and to recognize that most social situations do not involve rejection. Also, it assists with understanding that when other people mistreat you it is because of their flaws, not because of you.

2) Jealousy Assistance. When you are caught up in the obsessive jealous thinking it is difficult to talk yourself out of it. This audio helps you challenge the jealous thinking and to remind you that the jealous behaviors only make the situation worse. The more you listen to it, the more you will be able to challenge the irrational jealous talk yourself.

3) Irresponsibility of Dependency. This audio may seem harsh but for those who are overly dependent, but it is a necessary truth. Only by recognizing how your dependency creates what you fear will you be able to change your life. Your fear of being abandoned, of being alone, of being responsible for yourself is more likely to cause you to be rejected, abandoned, and alone. Once you realize that only you are responsible for changing this pattern, you can create a better life for yourself. No matter what happened to you in the past, you are responsible for your present.

Those who are overly dependent may present in different ways. Some present as helpless with the need to be taken care of while others may present as very controlling. No matter how the dependency may appear, it has the commonality of creating problems in relationships.

4) Lies You Were Told as a Child. This audio is to assist those who have been emotionally abused as a child. It discusses the lies you were told as a child by the abuser which can continue to affect your adult life. Learn how to refute these lies. If you have experienced these lies as a child, listening to this audio repeatedly can help you begin to change the impact of these lies in your life. The more you recognize that what you were told was a lie and learn to counter these lies, the more you can create a more fulfilling life.

5) Distrust of Others. Those who have been severely hurt or traumatized by others often have problems with trust. They may distrust everyone or trust someone too much. This audio discusses the concept of trust and to learn to discriminate. In other words, learning how much you can trust someone and to what degree you can trust them. In this way, you can examine others motives and behaviors more realistically and decide whether they are someone who you want in your life.

6) Change Yourself. This audio focuses on the cognitive fallacy of expecting others to change so that your life will be better. It discusses the idea that happy people focus on changing themselves rather than blaming others. It encourages the listener to do the same.

Choose the audios based upon what seems most relevant to you.

Cognitive Diary

Following are also some written exercises to help you examine and change your sensitivity to rejection. Again, doing these exercises consistently provides the repetition necessary for change. Excel At Life's Android app Cognitive Diary CBT Self-Help can be used to record these exercises.

Written Exercise 1: Recognizing rejection sensitivity by examining the evidence

Step 1. Write:

1) Factual description of event. Try to write as if you were writing a newspaper story. Do not include reasons why or what you thought about the event or what the person might have been thinking. Once you have written the description, re-read it and cross out anything that is not fact (you can put those thoughts in the next section).

2) Speculative thoughts. Write any thoughts you have about why the event occurred, what you think the other person was thinking, etc.

3) Evidence from factual description to support speculative thoughts. Indicate if any of the facts support your thoughts. Be careful, however, and don't try to create facts to support the thoughts.

Step 2. List all possible explanations for the behavior in your factual description no matter how unlikely it may be. Not censoring stimulates the creative part of your brain which helps you get unstuck from the same pathway of thinking. Use the Reasons for Perception of Meanness Inventory to help with developing possible explanations.

Step 3. Evaluate the evidence (factual description) and all the other possible explanations you have written to answer the following questions:

  • Is there evidence for rejection?
  • Is the behavior typical for this person or does it just occur with you?
  • Are there other reasonable explanations?
  • Have you asked for clarification? What was meant?
  • Have you checked out your assumption with an unbiased third party?
  • How likely is it that you were rejected?
  • “See! It was rejection!”

    Based upon your evaluation of the situation, you may have determined that rejection did not occur. If, instead, your evaluation indicates that your perception of rejection was accurate, the next step is to determine if the rejection was personal. In other words, is it really about you or is it about the kind of person the rejecting individual is? Keep in mind, as I've stated before, if you have done nothing wrong, then it either isn't a rejection or it isn't about you.

    Written Exercise 2: Challenge the personalizing of rejection

    Step 1. Review the situation to determine if rejection occurred or if the behavior was about you. Ask someone who can give you an unbiased opinion. Read the article Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally to give you some ideas about why the other person's behavior or comments might not be about you. If you can determine a reason unrelated to you for the behavior, you can then see how the rejecting behavior was not personal.

    Step 2. If the behavior was not personal, develop a coping statement to challenge the perception of rejection. Coping statements are usually short reminders. Although it is okay to write more as a way of challenging certain thinking, it is best to have a short coping statement as well because they are easier to remember.


  • I misunderstood him/her.
  • Rejection was not the intention.
  • The behavior wasn't personal.
  • Other people's behavior is about them, not me.
  • Sometimes rejecting behavior is due to misunderstandings.
  • People are often focused on themselves and not me.
  • S/he wasn't aware of me, and so, the behavior wasn't directed towards me.
  • S/he doesn't communicate well and might have meant something else.
  • S/he doesn't feel good about him/herself.
  • S/he has anxiety and tries to control others.
  • S/he avoids me due to depression, not me.
  • S/he is overly negative with everyone.
  • It was about his/her frustration, not me.
  • S/he feels superior to others and mistreats them.
  • S/he is a mean person who takes pleasure in mistreating others.
  • Step 3. If, however, the other person's behavior was personal and directed towards you because of something you said or did, then you need to determine how to think about and handle the situation. The following are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Was it a difference of opinion?
  • Was it a problem with fit?
  • Were you wrong or did you make a mistake?
  • Do you need to make changes or amends?
  • If the rejection was valid, decide if anything needs to be done and develop a plan. This can include making changes in your behavior or apologizing and accepting responsibility for your behavior. However, if it is a problem with fit because you and the other person are dissimilar, the solution, as difficult as it may be, is to accept the rejection rather than trying to compensate. Too often, when someone is interested in another person, they try to be what the other person wants. Such a tactic may be temporarily successful but can lead to disastrous consequences later on such as dissatisfaction in a marriage and divorce.

    “Okay. It wasn't personal. But it still feels like it.”

    You have already determined whether the situation involved rejection and, if it did, whether it was personal. However, you may still feel as if you have been rejected and that it was directed at you. To manage your perception of rejection and the accompanying emotions, you need to develop a new pathway in the brain regarding rejection. The current pathway connects your inaccurate perception of rejection with the feelings of loss, sadness, and pain. You can create a new pathway by using the cognitive method of repetition of the more accurate thinking.

    Changing thinking isn't only about understanding the inaccuracy of the thinking. More importantly, you need to change the connections in your brain. You can't get rid of the older, established connections, but through repetition you can create a newer, stronger connection. Emotions don't change just because you want them to. Emotions change through the process of repeating the more accurate coping thoughts.

    Written Exercise 3: Coping strategy plan

    Step 1. Develop a coping strategy of reminding yourself repeatedly about your conclusions.

    An easy way to do this is by using the app. Once you have completed the exercises and developed ways of thinking to challenge the old pathway, you can easily review these challenges in the “History” section of the app. This section provides your conclusions at a glance and also allows the option to email reminders of the thinking to yourself or your therapist. The repetition that helps build the new pathway in your brain can be obtained by reviewing this section frequently.

    If you are not using the app or website, the best way to obtain the same results is to keep a journal of these exercises. Similar to the app, reviewing your conclusions frequently will help change the emotions related to perceived rejection. You can also write your conclusions on an index card to carry with you for frequent perusal. You can record coping statements and listen to them. Whatever method you use, be sure to use it consistently and don't rely on your memory for the review. When you have an already established pathway in the brain, your memory will tend to follow that pathway and it is hard to divert it without some outside method.

    Sometimes people find that when they try to challenge the inaccurate thoughts, the brain will throw up roadblocks. In other words, the brain challenges the challenges. The tendency of your brain to choose the easiest path means that it is likely to follow the known path, even though it may be irrational or inaccurate. To modify this tendency to block your attempts at change, sometimes it is best to sneak up on the brain. What I mean is that typically the brain is using the same sensory modality (thought) to create the path. The path that is created by thought is well-worn and powerful. To sneak up on the brain, try using different sensory modalities such as the auditory or visual or even tactile. For instance, instead of thinking of your coping statement, say it out loud. Now you are using the auditory modality. Or you could use the visual modality and read the coping statement. The tactile modality is used when you write the coping statement. In fact, writing the coping statement while saying it out loud uses the auditory, visual, and tactile senses. In this way, you can bypass the automatic pathway that primarily consists of thought.

    Step 2. Review coping statements frequently

    Be sure to frequently review your coping statements. From my clinical experience, it seems that one of the more difficult aspects of changing thinking and the underlying emotions is remembering to use the coping statements. Some people believe that because the coping statement makes sense they should automatically think that way while others just forget to review the statements. Whatever the reason, understanding how your thinking is inaccurate is not enough. You need to develop the new pathway in the brain through repetition of the coping statements. Eventually, with enough repetition these thoughts will begin to become the easier and preferred path for the brain. Until then, you need to establish a way of creating repetition.

    To do this, it is best to have a plan for remembering to review the coping statements. Over the years my clients have been creative in this process. The following are some examples of the methods they have used:

  • Set an hourly chime on your watch.
  • Write the statements on your bathroom mirror.
  • Wear a wrist band as a reminder.
  • Write short emails to yourself and time their delivery.
  • Carry a card with your coping statements.
  • Use a wallpaper on your phone with the coping statement.
  • Set the reminder feature in the app.
  • Set your coping statements to randomly display on the opening screen of the app.
  • Finally, sometimes thinking doesn't need to be challenged. This can be especially true if you have already recognized the thinking, challenged it frequently, but still the thought intrudes. A good way to address this scenario is to develop a mindful attitude. Such an attitude allows you to refocus away from the uncomfortable thoughts as well as to develop a tolerance of the feelings related to feeling rejected. Learning to tolerate emotions is helpful because so often when we have a feeling, even if it is inaccurate, we reinforce it by creating a valid story to go with it. If, instead, you can learn to tolerate the feeling and not reinforce it, it loses its power. For more about developing a mindful attitude, listen to the Excel At Life audios Understanding Mindfulness.


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